In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan (Penguin, New York, 2008)
I'm in the middle (okay, the beginning) of two rather hefty books at the moment, Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Ancient World, and my latest review book from Thomas Nelson, The Chronological Guide to the Bible. It's great to be reading the two of them together, though that means it will be a long time before I can review either one.
And now longer still, as the library e-mailed to let me know that I'd made it to the top of the waiting list for In Defense of Food. Michael Pollan is shaping up to be the next John Taylor Gatto for me: a modern author whose books I simply can't resist and can't put down. Reading was the easy part; reviewing without quoting from every page is the difficulty. The book is bristling with my neon green and pink sticky notes.
C. S. Lewis, writing more than half a century ago about the unhealthy state of our sexual appetites, made this comparison with our approach to food:
The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.
Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a striptease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?
And indeed it has. Americans are obsessed with food, simultaneously overweight and undernourished, eating more and enjoying it less. Although the causes of our unhealthy relationship with food are many and complex, much is explained by the simple idea that we have abdicated our responsibility for what and how we eat in favor of the expert opinion of professionals. Never mind that the experts change their minds dramatically with alarming and almost predictable frequency. Reading In Defense of Food, I was struck by a feeling of same song, next verse. It's a strikingly familiar story to anyone who has considered the arenas of childbirth, medical care, education and even entertainment, in which we have ceded our rights and responsibilities to others.
The good news? Our eating disorders are not our fault, but the cumulative effect of bad science, bad advice, and the biases of a whole lot of people in government, academia, and the food and medical industries who realize that there is much more profit in a Twinkie than a carrot. The better news? We can change. We can take back the responsibility for our own food choices.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Pollan begins with this succinct expression of how to eat right. In the final section he fleshes out these thoughts with some practical suggestions, and in between he covers the dangers of nutritionism—regarding food as nothing more than a delivery system for nutrients—and why the Western diet appears largely responsible for what he calls the diseases of civilization.
I'm going to ignore most of my colorful sticky notes, but here are some favorites:
USDA figures show a decline in the nutrient content of the forty-three crops it has tracked since the 1950s. In one recent analysis, vitamin C declined by 20 percent, iron by 15 percent, riboflavin by 38 percent, calcium by 16 percent....To put this in concrete terms, you now have to eat three apples to get the same amount of iron as you would have gotten from a single 1940 apple, and you'd have to eat several more slices of bread to get your recommended daily allowance of zinc than you would have a century ago.
Paul Rozin is a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has dreamed up some of the more imaginative survey questions ever asked of American eaters; the answers he's collected offer a pretty good index to our current befuddlement and anxiety about eating.... In one experiment, he showed the words "chocolate cake" to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. "Guilt" was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of the French eaters to the same prompt: "celebration."
A few years ago, Rozin presented a group of Americans with the following sentence: "Assume you are alone on a desert island for one year and you can have water and one other food. Pick the food that you think would be best for your health." The choices were corn, alfalfa sprouts, hot dogs, spinach, peaches, bananas, and milk chocolate. The most popular choice was bananas (42 percent), followed by spinach (27 percent), corn (12 percent), alfalfa sprouts (7 percent), peaches (5 percent), hot dogs (4 percent), and milk chocolate (3 percent). Only 7 percent of the participants chose one of the two foods that would in fact best support survival: hot dogs and milk chocolate.
Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is a book well worth reading, but In Defense of Food is well worth buying, if only to be able to lend it out. It's in my Amazon shopping cart even now.